Guest Column

As Oregon begins to reopen regions across the state and with the public leaving the confines of their homes, businesses face difficult decisions. They are eager to open even in a new version of normal and are doing their best to interpret and comply with the state’s COVID-19 safety guidance to keep people safe. Business owners understand that protecting their employees and customers will prevent them from staring at another closure down the road.

While we should expect businesses to be vigilant in keeping their customers as safe as possible, there are factors beyond their control. They can do their best to abide by the guidelines, but the virus can find ways to get around best intentions, and human beings as the carriers may mistakenly spread it even when they are being careful. We cannot hold businesses entirely accountable for keeping the disease at bay if they are playing by the rules. We need a good samaritan policy that relieves businesses from the burden of legal liability if someone contracts COVID-19 while they are doing their best to follow guidelines to protect their employees and customers.

Many of the state’s guidelines are unclear, and while some are “required” precautions that are more prescriptive for retailers, restaurants, hairstylists, and other consumer facing businesses, there are a significant amount of recommendations that are less clear and open for interpretation. Additionally, the application of these guidelines can vary greatly due to physical and operational differences in each business.

Business owners I’ve spoken with in my role as board chair for the Bend Chamber of Commerce, are approaching reopening very cautiously and some are delaying opening their doors. They are concerned about the lack of clarity in the state’s reopening policies and their ability to interpret and implement how they apply them to their business.

Even when they do their best in placing plexiglass, spacing their customers, sanitizing, and changing the way they operate, they still face uncertainty of their legal liabilities in this new COVID-19 era.

There are tracing and operational guidelines that inform employers what to do should an employee or customer contract COVID-19 in their business. Once they complete the protocols, will a lawsuit follow? This is a serious concern that every business owner must consider. Even when they are doing their very best to keep people safe, they can be sued, and if fact, this is already happening. Since most insurance policies carrying exclusions for viruses or disease pandemics, business owners recognize they are exposed to lawsuits. They need protection.

Oregon has multiple good samaritan laws on the books to protect individuals that are providing a service or assisting a fellow citizen in need. These types of protections should apply to businesses that are operating in good faith under new requirements. I’m not suggesting permanent or blanket immunity, but rather temporary and targeted limits to liability for COVID-19 related business decisions. If a business willfully disobeys public health policies, they should absolutely be held responsible. But let’s support the vast majority of businesses that are trying their best to open their doors in the wake of economic turmoil. And let’s remember that customers need to comply with state guidelines as well, with businesses in the position of being hall monitor for their own customers.

As our state lawmakers convene for a special session to address the state’s budget challenges, one of the most important things they can do to help is to provide legal protections for businesses acting in good faith.

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Scott Wallace is president of The Wallace Group and board chair of the Bend Chamber

of Commerce.

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